Al-Qaeda scare jolts Pakistan into actionKARACHI - The level of tolerance between the government of President General Pervez Musharraf and Islamists elements, whether they are part of the establishment or outside it, has reached a point of no return, a development with vast implications for the US-led "war on terror".
Islamist elements are determined to push until one side breaks, while Musharraf, a key US ally in the "war on terror" and under intense pressure from Washington, has to take rapid steps to contain the rise of militancy in the region, which has Pakistan as its nucleus.
The recent discovery of a planned al-Qaeda-backed coup against Musharraf's regime, which included men in uniform associated with sensitive strategic institutions, underlines Musharraf's difficulties.
According to information obtained by Asia Times Online, the coup plot was hatched in the Waziristan tribal area headquarters of al-Qaeda. The conspiracy was uncovered after a mobile phone used to activate a rocket aimed at the president's residence was traced to an air force officer. More than 40 people, both inside and outside the military, were subsequently arrested.
The most alarming issue for the Pakistani establishment was not only the involvement of air force officers, but the apparent deep penetration of al-Qaeda into highly sensitive areas.
Those arrested in the conspiracy plot include air force engineers associated with the Air Weapon Complex (AWC) of Pakistan, a leading organization in the field of air-delivered weapons and systems. Its personnel are subjected to vigorous and intrusive background checks.
The personnel arrested were employed in the high-profile research and development section of the AWC. The linkage of such security-cleared people with al-Qaeda, who, according to Asia Times Online's information, were to carry out the attacks on signals received from Waziristan, sheds light on the vulnerable security situation in Pakistan. At the same time, it shows the depth of feeling in segments of society who reject Pakistan's role in the "war on terror".
Pakistani security officials have confirmed that the rocket plot to assassinate Musharraf was an al-Qaeda-linked conspiracy. At a press conference, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao announced that eight al-Qaeda militants had been arrested.
Significantly, however, the establishment has not admitted publicly that any military officers were involved in the conspiracy, as they were in at least two previous attempts on Musharraf's life since he seized power in 1999.
When quoted an Asia Times Online article saying that air force officers were involved (Pakistan foils coup plot Oct 14), Sherpao dismissed it. But later, he did concede that those arrested included some air force officers, yet he rejected the idea of a coup.
This attitude reflects the state of denial of Pakistan's leaders, who will not admit that renegade Islamist elements have infiltrated the armed forces, so much so that they have even entered institutions like the AWC's research and development section.
Musharraf's main constituency is the Pakistani armed forces. Whether officer or soldier, the majority hail from Punjab province's rural areas or the Pashtun tribal belt, and belong to the traditionally martial races of the region. Because of their traditional background they are often over-zealous in their religious beliefs and practices.
World events after September 11, 2001, especially the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have further radicalized this already strong religious passions among soldiers and officers. Musharraf's abandonment of the Taliban and attempts to purge society of radical religious ideas have heaped fuel on this fire.
Inevitably, then, as Musharraf pursued his plans to abandon all traces of sharia law and contain militancy in the country, he faced a serious backlash. He was therefore forced to adopt a policy of "two steps forward and one step back". Nevertheless, the pace of events in the past few months has taken Pakistan to a point where it has to play a decisive role, and of course Musharraf is in charge of this mission that requires quick and uncompromising steps.
The main task - as reinforced by Washington - is to destroy the command and control centers in Pakistan of the Taliban-led Afghan resistance. Word has filtered out that Islamabad will launch a major action in the next few days in the northwest and southwest (Balochistan).
Any northwest operation could involve the sensitive and semi-independent North and South Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban have a strong footprint here and recently negotiated an agreement with Islamabad which included the army pulling its troops out of the area. This accord could now be in jeopardy.
"I do not know whether it was a coup attempt or not, but certainly we would support any coup for the cause of Islamic sharia," retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja, a former Inter Services Intelligence official and once a close friend of Osama bin Laden, told Asia Times Online. "Nevertheless, if the coup is without any cause and is just a grab for power, we would oppose it," Khawaja said.
At the core of the struggle in Pakistan is this contradiction between many in the strategic institutions, dominated by hardliners, and Musharraf, who is a genuine liberal-minded person by comparison and fully committed to the "war on terror".
While these opposing forces have coexisted in the past, Afghanistan has proved a decisive trigger as the Taliban have gone from strength to strength, in large part because of their support bases in Pakistan. With just weeks before snow sends the Taliban's offensive into hibernation, Musharraf needs - and wants - to act very soon. His opponents are in no mood to back down.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]